It is sadly impossible to write anything critical about a report on sexual harassment in the workplace without coming over like some frightful old golf club misogynist. To be clear, therefore, none of what follows seeks to belittle the distress of those genuinely harassed at work, but balance nonetheless dictates a counter-point to the TUC’s recent report “Still just a bit of banter?”, produced in association with the randomly capitalised Everyday Sexism Project, also appearing as the Everyday Sexism project and the everyday sexism project.
Based on a January 2016 survey of 3,524 UK adults (of whom only 1,533 were willing to be asked about workplace harassment), plus a March 2016 survey of an unspecified number of union members, key findings in the report are:
- 52% of women have experienced “some form of” sexual harassment at some point in their working lives, though a dramatically smaller proportion report it in the last twelve months. As a snapshot of current workplace behaviours, the report’s subtitle “Sexual harassment in the workplace in 2016” is therefore a little misleading;
- Only 20% said that the perpetrator was their direct manager or someone else with direct authority over them. 7% said it was someone external to the employer, like a customer, and 6% couldn’t remember. Despite the finding that by far the largest part of harassment is committed by peers or subordinates, the TUC report cannot resist a pop at management – “several studies have found that perpetrators of sexual harassment tend to be in a position of power over the target of the harassment“, it avers with a straight face, despite its own findings to exactly the opposite effect;
- 80% did not refer the harassment to their employer (although the statistics later in the report in fact show that only 3% took the issue to their HR department);
- and the statistic which most exercised TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady? That only 1% reported the matter to a union official.
If these figures are representative of the UK workforce as a whole, they make pretty grim reading. Whether they are representative is a separate question. We do not know what industry sectors or social groups were polled, nor why some two thirds of those asked had nothing to say on the point. We do not know how many of those who responded were in younger age brackets or in insecure employments and so potentially more susceptible to harassment. The report concedes that the sample size of women in specific types of contract was too small to allow the drawing of any firm conclusions in that respect.
Why was such a tiny proportion of harassment reported? Nearly 30% feared that reporting harassment to their employer would have a negative impact on relationships at work. 15% feared an adverse impact on career and a quarter felt that they would not be believed or taken seriously. A frankly depressing 21% said that they didn’t even know they could report harassment, or were not sure how to do it.
There is no real analysis in the report of why harassment is not more often reported to union officials. However, since the great majority of harassers appear to be colleagues of the victim (and hence presumably as unionised as she is), there must be scope for arguing a lack of confidence that the average union official will be able to manage adequately his conflicting duties to his two members, alleged harasser and alleged victim. Some of the conduct included within the report’s definition of sexual harassment could be entirely inadvertent and without malice. As we know, intention to cause offence is in no way a pre-requisite of harassment. Before the union can advocate zero-tolerance policies by the employer, it would therefore have to do the same itself, i.e. effectively disown any member it considers guilty at any level. This may seem an unlikely outcome. A 1% report rate is even more woeful than the 3% to HR, but the cause of that problem may lie closer to home for the union movement than this report seems to suggest.
As to outcomes when harassment was reported, 70% saw no difference in their employer’s treatment of them, 10% thought the employer’s behaviour had improved, 16% that it had got worse and 3% didn’t know one way or the other. What is not clear from the paper is whether reporting harassment led to any difference in treatment by the complainant’s peers, rather than the employer, since it is they who appear to be primarily responsible.
The report concludes with a series of predictable but unlikely recommendations for Government and employers. For the Government: abolish ET fees, implement the third party harassment provisions from the Equality Act and extend employment rights to all workers (notwithstanding that all workers do already benefit from protections against harassment). For employers: provide “decent jobs and decent pay” (a bit off-piste in a sexual harassment report, but presumably thought to be worth a go anyway); more training of “HR and all levels of management” (only later conceding that “training for all staff may be appropriate“); and implementation of policies to avoid “inadequate management responses“. These include “disbelieving the complainant“, seemingly allowing no scope for any conclusion, however justified, that he or she is not telling the truth.
The law already provides a remedy for sexual harassment and another for victimisation. There is a fee but if the employee cannot raise it or get her union to do so, the Tribunal remission scheme may well help. However, no legislation and no employer can protect against a fear of damaging relationships at work and in particular, no legislation and no employer can provide recourse for sexual harassment complaints which the victim does not make in the first place.